Neil Travis - March 28, 2011

It has been a long winter over most of the country. From the Pacific coast of Washington to the wave swept rocks of Maine it has been a long, cold winter. For the Brothers and Sisters of the Angle spring cannot come soon enough. However, after a long winter of tying flies and dreaming of hooking those big ones remember that early season fishing is quite different than it was when you wet a line late last fall.

For a number of years I fished every month of the year, although sometimes for only a short period of time during the coldest months of the years. Now, retired and spending the winter months in southern Arizona, there are several months of each year when I don’t even pick up a fly rod. Returning home to Montana in April I need to work out the kinks from a winter of inactivity, fly-fishing wise.

The Yellowstone River nearly runs through my back yard, and if we have unusually high water it could actually run through it. It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of The River Runs Through It! Flooding aside, almost all streams run high in the spring of the year. As the winter snow melts and the spring rains add to the water running downhill your favorite stream may suddenly be turned into a raging torrent. If you’re like me you want to fish but you need to access the conditions before you just jump in.

Many times during the early season in Montana I don’t get into the water at all. I am especially cautious if the water is off-color, which it generally is early in the season. If the stream is high one slip can put you in immediate danger, and no fish is worth your life! Staying on the bank can be an advantage in the early season, especially when the water is high. Trout, like many of us, are basically lazy and they will find places where they can sit out of the main flow. During periods of high water the calmest water is often right along the bank. If you are fishing out in the current and wading along the bank you are wading where you should be fishing.

A case in point is a day of fishing that I experienced a few years ago just before the beginning of the main spring run-off on the Yellowstone River just south of my Montana home. The famous Mother’s Day caddis hatch was in progress and I headed down the river to fish. I tried to find the head of the hatch where there was a good number of hatching insects but not an excessive number so that the fish were stuffed on the hatching insects. The stretch of water that I settled on was a long stretch of broken water below a heavy riffle. The stream edge was a mixture of the normal Yellowstone cobble interspersed with small gravel and sand. I put on my hip waders since I had no intention of getting into the water except for an occasional slip as I walked along the bank. I wore the hippers merely to keep my feet dry.

I started at the bottom of the run about 1:30 in the afternoon just as the hatch was getting started. Looking up the edge of the run I could see an occasional rise but I was certain that most of the action was just under the surface. I selected a high floating Elk Hair Caddis for a dry fly and a soft-hackled caddis emerger pattern on a dropper line attached to the bend of the dry fly hook. I started with a dropper about 12 inches long, dressed the Elk Hair Caddis with a good dose of floatant, and started to ease my way along the bank. I kept my casts short, dropping my two fly combinations right tight to the bank. It took me about two hours to work a couple hundred feet of stream and I hooked fish after fish. I never made a cast longer than 20 feet and many casts were shorter than 10 feet. All the fish that I hooked were within 2 feet from the edge of the bank. They were all good fish in the 14 to 18 inch range, and were a mixed bag of browns and rainbows with even an occasional cutthroat. Most important, I never got into the river deeper than my ankles.

If the water is extremely high without any hatching insects it may still be possible to do some fishing. The key is patience. Many years ago I had an old friend whose favorite time to fish the Yellowstone River was when it was at its highest point. When no one else was on the river he would head out on his bicycle, he didn’t own a car, with his old fiberglass fly rod and canvas creel strapped to the back of his bike. He had several favorite places that he liked to fish when the river was bank full, big eddies that formed along the rock riprap that is used to reinforce the banks against the onslaught of the river. His favorite fly was a non-descript black nymph that he tied from skunk hair and several wraps of lead wire. He would plunk that scraggly fly into the slowly swirling water and let the fly just drift around with the current. It wasn’t fast fishing and he often would allow his fly to swirl around in the current for a half hour or more, but the trout he caught using this technique were legendary. While this type of fly-fishing is not my cup of tea but the lesson is simple – fishing large wet imitations in the calmer water near the banks when your favorite stream is bank full plus may produce some very interesting action.

Since wading may be dangerous when a river is high and discolored floating may seem to be an attractive alternative but, like wading, caution is required. While wading may be dangerous floating may be suicide for the unwary. Each year where I live in Montana a number of people get in serious trouble when they attempt to float on run-off swollen rivers. High water hides all manner of dangers and unless you have extensive experience floating in high water and strong currents you should never attempt to float a river during periods of high water.

If the rivers are blown out and you don’t desire to fish big nymphs from the bank you might check out a local lake or pond. If you have a spring creek in your area it is unlikely that it is experiencing high water and is likely clear and very fishable. Spring creeks and still waters are my choice when all the other waters are high and dirty. A resourceful angler can usually find some fishable water without putting themselves in danger.

Right after the ice goes out or just as it’s going out is a great time to fish many ponds and lakes, especially trout lakes. Trout will move into shallow water where the heat of the spring sun will begin to warm the water. The warmer water will increase the trout’s metabolism and they will go on a brief feeding frenzy. Large buggy-looking imitations are a good offering. I like to use big leech patterns fished on a sink-tip or full sinking line. I cast from shore out toward deeper water and, after allowing the fly to sink to the bottom, retrieve the fly back toward the shore. I vary my retrieve until I find one that produces results. The trout may be hungry but you need to remember that the water is still cold and the trout’s reaction time is slower than it will be when the water is warmer. I lower the tip of my rod right down to the water level and make a slow 4 to 6 inch long strip while I slowly raise the rod tip. Then I lower the rod tip back to the surface of the water and repeat the process. Sometimes the trout will hit the fly solidly and other times they merely pick up the fly and slowly begin to swim away. However they take the fly, this type of fishing can provide great sport as the ice begins to break up on your favorite trout lake.
Warm water anglers will find the coming of spring the beginning of spawning season for many species of warm water fish. Some of my fondest memories during my youth back in the Midwest was fishing for Bluegills when they were spawning. Protective of their nests and eggs they attack anything that comes near. This is a perfect setup for the fly fisher. In addition to Bluegills many other warm water species – bass, crappie, perch, and northern pike – move into shallow water during the spring months to spawn or feed after the long cold winter locked under a sheet of ice. If you live near lakes or ponds that contain any of these species you have a ready-made early season fishing opportunity.

Spring is coming but the waters that we love to fish are still cold. Some of them will be high and cold but if you stop and think it is usually possible to fish them safely and successfully. 

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